Image: Pexels

Addressing the issue of free speech at universities

“This House Regrets No Platforming Policies at Universities” was the motion put forward at a debate hosted by Warwick Debating Union on 26 October. The panel included academics and activists, as well as a competitive debater; and judging from the turnout, this issue is of intrigue to many Warwick students.

Freedom of speech is a fundamental part of the fabric of our society, yet we do not enjoy it as an absolute right. National security breaches, defamation, and speech that incites hatred or violence are all illegal under UK law.

According to the NUS website, the No Platform policy is a specific and narrow policy that is democratically decided upon at the National Conference annually. Currently there are 6 racist and fascist organisations that are ‘no platformed’. This means that these groups or any individuals known to have fascist and racist views are not allowed to speak at NUS events, and that NUS representatives do not share platforms with such people. However, this is not a blanket ban on all student unions and groups; they can decide on their own. The purpose of this policy is to “enfranchise freedom of speech and keep students safe”.

No Platform is protecting vulnerable students by prioritising minority voices.

At first glance, this seems contradictory. Banning people from speaking is diametrically opposed to the notion of free expression. However, Brian Wong for the opposition raised the issue that No Platforming actually restores the balance in debate. Allowing racists a platform is de facto taking away that platform from a more credible and valued individual. Favouring controversial figures over conservative pundits with valid points is delegitimising legitimate views.

An important point made by Flora Pery-Knox-Gore for the opposition was that not all speech is equal. No Platform is protecting vulnerable students by prioritising minority voices. She also stated that no other organisation is expected to be neutral and by using a No Platform policy, the SU is making a statement about which voices they want to promote.

A phobia of difficult engagement has arisen in universities.

But are there any opinions that are not worth listening to? Eric Heinze for the proposition certainly did not think so. He stated that he had seen students and even faculty members losing debates against hate preachers. A phobia of difficult engagement has arisen in universities and if the academic community cannot intellectually defeat a racist in an argument, what does this say about the value of higher education? Additionally, there is the problem of who decides whether an opinion is not worth hearing. Morality and ethics have evolved over time; right and wrong are different depending on where you are in the world. Student Unions are by and large left-wing institutions. Yes, they are democratically elected by the student body, but democracy does not mean you silence those you disagree with—rather, it allows for dissent.

The proposition’s Dennis Hayes claimed that No Platform was an act of intellectual violence against students. He states that students are being denied their capacity to reason, but I find myself wondering how debating the validity of someone’s existence is necessary for intellectual development. This is particularly relevant vis-à-vis the Oxford Vice-Chancellor’s comments suggesting that students expressing discomfort from being taught by homophobic professors should simply challenge their views. This completely disregards the pastoral student-staff relationship. Whilst it is true that every controversial social issue has a power imbalance, we have to ask ourselves whether we tolerate intolerance. According to Warwick Student Union’s external speaker policy, the SU aims “to provide an environment where freedom of expression and speech are protected balanced with the need to ensure that our community is free from harm and that incitement to hatred is never acceptable”.

In 2015, Warwick SU was under spotlight for barring Maryam Namazie from speaking on campus.

In 2015, Warwick SU was under the spotlight for barring Maryam Namazie from speaking on campus. Namazie is an Iranian secular political activist and campaigner; she is vocal against religious ideologies, especially Islam. A highly controversial decision, many were quick to call out Warwick for its culture of censorship. Criticising ideas is not the same as inciting hatred but it seems that in practice student unions across the UK have struggled in differentiating between the two. In the end, the decision to disinvite her was reversed with the SU citing procedural errors as the reason for the initial ban.

On one side, there is the idea of “generation snowflake”. Mollycoddled students living in their own echo chamber, creating a bubble, unable to face the challenges of the real world. However, since students have full access to the external community and the internet, they are not being stopped from listening to certain people if they so desire.

Should the SU be held responsible for any harm caused by speeches held on campus?

Another point of contention between the two sides was whether by giving a platform to a speaker, you endorse their view. Should the SU be held responsible for any harm caused by speeches held on campus? It is not possible to say that the SU agrees with every individual they invite to speak, but as their primary concern is the welfare of students, it is reasonable to expect them to regulate speakers.

Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the dangers of stifling debate on the larger scale. Here and in the USA we have seen the Trump and Brexit phenomena. People are so out of touch with what their fellow citizens were thinking. Many are scared to dissent from left wing views because this can, and has, led to social ostracisation and doxing. Shunning an environment that encourages honest debate marginalises people which is completely in opposition to what universities want to promote.

Policies like PREVENT have done more to stifle speech at university than the No Platform policy

Personally I believe the biggest threat to free speech at universities does not come from the NUS, but rather the government itself. Policies like PREVENT, aimed at protecting young people from radicalisation, have done more to stifle speech at universities than any No Platform policy. National surveillance issues around the world are much more pertinent issues to our freedom than an SU banning Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking, because his right to speech off-campus has not been affected at all.

To conclude, it should be the student body’s decision who they want to listen to, and we need to nurture a climate where the ‘radical left’ is not stifling debate. Students should feel safe at university but they should also be exposed to a melange of ideas. On this occasion the proposition won the debate, though I am still inclined to agree with the idea that the right to free speech is not a right to an audience.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.